On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof opened fire during Bible study at Mother Emanuel. We know the horrors of this day. The impact of the tragedy rippled from Charleston, felt throughout the country.
Artist Susan Perkins was shaken to her core. The shooting happened only blocks from where she’d once lived in Charleston before moving to Dallas. Almost exactly a year later, the 2016 shooting of Dallas police officers claimed five lives just blocks away from her high-rise apartment. “It really woke me up,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, what is going on? How many communities are feeling this — not just my communities?'”
Visual Vigil became her meditation — a way to process the violence, cope with its effects, and honor the victims. Each piece in the collection appears as a repetitive, minimalist grid pattern. It started with a piece for Charleston — a woven grid with nine beads attached, made from a meditative drawing, torn into strips and tightly rolled. For other works, she painted over a grid, creating the same pattern in two dimensions. In these, the beads representing the victims are flat strips of her former drawings collaged directly into the windows of the grid. Perkins calls them “bedes,” an archaic term for prayer, because she considers her drawings that are torn to become a part of these work’s meditative devotions for every victim.
“They’re my prayer time. I tear them up, and that’s impermanence and a process of letting go. It also ties into concepts of loss and transformation,” she says. By ripping apart her drawings and reconstructing them into a new work, her visualizations offer a reflection on how society reshapes and reconstructs itself following these events.
“My belief is that we’re all interconnected in the same way that these grids are connected. We have a kind of mutual independence as a society. The grid also reminds me of a building, and I was asking myself, ‘What kind of society are we building here that we allow this to continue to go on and nothing can be done about it?'”
For Perkins, the project is the answer to a spiritual calling as much as it is informative and therapeutic. In 2010, she joined a three-year spiritual education program that would forever shape her work. She studied world religions, prayer, meditation, and the art of listening to her inner voice. “That’s when my art really changed,” she says. “That’s when I began weaving and took the color out of my art to create more space. I started the art of less. I felt like these weavings were already inside me. They were already living there my whole life, but I didn’t get quiet enough to hear them.”
The project now contains over 200 individual works. She’s working on one now that no one has seen yet that’s nearly 40-feet long with more than 4,600 beads on it. They serve as a startling visualization of the increase of gun violence over time. She’s made a piece for every mass shooting event since America’s first recognized event in 1903, when a man named Gilbert Twigg opened fire during a concert in Winfield, Kan., killing nine and injuring dozens. 2019 required the largest number of pieces to date with 34 individual works. Each piece is based on the FBI’s original definition of a mass shooting — four or more fatalities, one shooting, one location. “If I made them for every act of gun violence, I would never be able to eat or sleep there’s so many. It’s eye-opening,” she says.
Ultimately, Perkins hopes these visualizations inspire thoughtful conversation and, consequently, promote change. An artist talk planned for later this year will also involve MUSC pediatrician Dr. Anne Andrews; co-founder of We are Their Voices Tisa Whack; and mental health specialist Tenelle Jones who worked with families of Mother Emanuel victims.
“I’m going to talk briefly about the process and the mission, but they’re going to talk more about the effects of mass shootings, not only for those that are directly traumatized like families and friends, but also for all of us that are indirectly traumatized. Our society is starting to carry a collective trauma,” says Perkins. “I hope we can have a lot of conversation on why this is happening, what’s going on, what we can do. I think the whole purpose of the art is to invite in a conversation for change.”
Visual Vigil will open at the City Gallery as soon as it is safe to do so. Until then, you can see some of Perkins’ work online at susanperkinsart.com.
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